US district judge Susan Illston told lawyers during a Friday court hearing in San Francisco that she is likely to approve the fine, which is the cornerstone of a settlement reached three months ago between the Federal Trade Commission and Google.
The rebuke is meant to resolve allegations that Google duped millions of Web surfers who use the Safari browser into believing their online activities couldn't be tracked by the company as long as they didn't change the browser's privacy settings. That assurance was posted on Google's website earlier this year, even as the Internet search leader was inserting computer coding that bypassed Safari's automatic settings and enabled the company to peer into the online lives of the browser's users.
The FTC concluded that the contradiction between Google's stealth tracking and its privacy assurances to Safari users violated a vow the company made in another settlement with the agency last year. Google had promised not to mislead people about its privacy practices.
While FTC hailed its actions as proof of its resolve to protect the public interest, a consumer rights group attacked the settlement as an example of ineffectual regulation. The group, Consumer Watchdog, is trying to bring more attention to the issue as the FTC wraps up a separate investigation into complaints that Google has been stifling competition and raising online ad prices by highlight its own services in its influential search engine.
Consumer Watchdog attorney Gary Reback is hoping to pressure the FTC to take Google to court in the antitrust investigation instead of negotiating a settlement known as a consent decree, as it did in the Safari privacy flap.
A consent decree is not a good way to police Google, Reback said in an interview after Friday's court hearing. Reback also is representing some of the internet companies that have filed complaints against Google in the antitrust case.
FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz has said he expects regulators to decide whether to sue, settle or simply close the antitrust investigation by the end of this year.
In the Safari case, Consumer Watchdog argued the fine amounts to loose change for a company like Google, which generates about $22.5 million in revenue every four hours. In legal briefs, Reback asserted that Google should be fined at least $3 billion because of the number of people potentially affected.